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Kansas Firefighters Go West to Fight Fires, and COVID-19

'No end in sight'

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Above image credit: Firefighters fight to contain the flames from the Glass Fire Incident near a home in Santa Rosa, California. Tens of thousands of people were forced to flee their homes in California's Napa and Sonoma valleys on Monday as wildfires fanned by fierce winds ripped through the world-famous wine region. (Chris Tuite | ImageSPACE/MediaPunch /IPX)

This summer, Adam Robinson confronted two enemies of historic proportions at the same time.

Robinson, a captain with the Fire District #1 of Johnson County, spent August battling the largest fire in Colorado’s history. He, and thousands of firefighters from across the country, are working a wildland fire season in the West that is remarkable not only in the numbers of fires but how long the fires have raged.

And a season remarkable for something else – the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s kind of like trying to fight two battles at once,” Robinson said.

“You are focusing on the fire, how quickly it’s changing, how you need to fight it and how you have to change your tactics,” he said. “But at the same time you are having to focus on keeping your crew healthy and safe in regards to COVID 19. 

“It has been an extra challenge.”

Most of the year, Robinson does what communities depend on firefighters to do. He provides fire and EMS (emergency medical services) protection. He goes out on local structure fires and accidents.

Robinson also has unique experience thanks to where he is stationed on the outskirts of the metro area. Fire District #1 of Johnson County covers Gardner, Edgerton, the New Century Air Center and 100 square miles of rural southwest Johnson County.

“Deploying out West helps us build that wildland program,” Robinson said. “It’s great training.”

Helping fight wildland fires in the West isn’t new to the District #1 firefighters. Each summer, all fire departments evaluate if and when resources can be deployed.

Fire District No. 1 firefighters n Johnson County
Captain Adam Robinson, left, of Fire District No. 1 in Johnson County headed out in early August to wildland fires in western Colorado along with firefighter Blake Meyer, middle, and firefighter Chase Gourley, right. The three-member crew worked 21 days on the fire line of the Pine Gulch fire, which became Colorado’s largest fire ever. (Contributed)

Robinson and two other firefighters — Chase Gourley and Blake Meyer –were gone almost all of August.

“For us, that’s all the availability we were able to provide this year,” Robinson said. “In years past, we have gone out two or three times.”

“It’s completely different than working back home on a structural fire,” Robinson added. “Here we work a 24-hour shift and we go home to our families. Out there, there is no going home and seeing our family and resetting.”

Typically a crew is out for 14 days. Not this year. 

“We were on 21 days,” Robinson said. “That was because there weren’t a lot of resources available with all these fires going on.” 

Their assignment was the Pine Gulch Fire in western Colorado, which began after a lightning strike first reported on July 31. It wasn’t considered 100% contained until Sept. 2.

The Pine Gulch Fire burned 139,007 acres – or the equivalent of nearly half of Johnson County.

Firefighters facing this year’s infernos have another threat that is no bigger than a liquid droplet: COVID-19.

“We try not to let it be distracting because the most important thing when we are out there is keeping each other safe and staying focused on the rapidly changing fire that is in front of us,” Robinson said. “But whenever possible we have to focus back on decontamination and social distancing.”

Things were different in how firefighters got supplies and food, fixed their equipment and how they checked in and out of a fire.

“All those things are done as remotely and over phone calls and over QR codes as possible,” Robinson said.

Once in Colorado, things were very different.

“When you travel to an incident in years past you would report to an incident report post that is basically a small city,” Robinson said. “There could be up to 1,000 firefighters that report to that incident command post.”

Not this year.

“Obviously, there are still wildland fires going on and they still need to be managed,” Robinson said. “They have to find a way for all these thousands of firefighters to travel across the U.S. and report to those incidents without having as much close contact as we have had in years past.”

Instead of going into a fire camp, the crew stayed by their own equipment where food – usually enjoyed at a table with others in the fire camp – was brought to them.

“Keeping a crew healthy and safe for that amount of time, while you are working in those kinds of conditions, is challenging,” Robinson said. “We just have to be as diligent as we possibly can.  It’s just the same as back home. We clean the fire trucks. We wear masks. We wash our hands as often as possible.

“We are used to being out and in dangerous situations. Those are the kind of things we signed up for. Those are the things we go out and handle. But when you add in an extra element of danger, it’s a whole different thought process.

“It’s not ideal, but the job still needs to be done.”

Robinson and his team did their job in Colorado. And no one tested positive for COVID-19.                                                                    

Seeking Normalcy

Robinson is only one of the firefighters from Kansas helping out in this extraordinary year of western fires.

The Kansas Forest Service in Manhattan has dispatched 36 people to help fight fires in Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico, Oregon and Wyoming.

So far, these 36, who are either full-time Kansas Forest Service employees or trained Fire Protection Specialists, have been deployed for 1,262 days. A day on a fire line means a 16-hour shift.

Typically, an individual dispatched through the Kansas Forest Service might work one or two fire assignments in a year.

Not this year.

“People are pushing three, maybe four assignments,” said Mark Neely, State Fire Management Officer with the Kansas Forest Service. “We’ve had multiple trucks out at the same time.”

Usually, fire assignments come in for June, July and August.

Not this year.

“Here we are in September, going into October, with no end in sight,” Neely said.

And assignments for equipment and crew are being extraordinarily fast – like last week.

“We had a truck called up in 10 minutes after it was available,” Neely said. “That’s the fastest we have ever seen.”

Firefighters assigned to a wildland fire are paid an hourly, position-based rate. Agencies are paid for their equipment.

These costs are paid for by the home unit where the fire occurs, which could include a variety of state and federal agencies: state forestry, state conservation agencies, Bureau of Land Management, United States Forest Service, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

The trained fire specialists are not on the Forest Service’s payroll. Neely said these are mostly retired firefighters.

“We have a lot who do ranching or farming and this is their supplemental income,” Neely said.

And it has been important to be able to be called to help out in a wildland fire.

“With COVID and what a year it’s been, it actually brings some normality to their lives because they do it every summer,” Neely said. “They get a chance to go back out and make some money.”

And they get very critical training.

“They get training and experience far beyond what they get in Kansas and then they bring that back to Kansas where when we have our large fires,” Neely said. “We call upon these same people, these fire protection specialists, to come down and manage those fires.”

“You might have a very inexperienced 18-, 19-year-old volunteer on a truck fighting a grass fire in Kansas, but he also has a strike team leader right there,” Neely said. “A strike team leader is able to tell them what to do to fight the fire safely and efficiently as possible. That 18- or 19-year-old is gaining knowledge, that experience, from that guy who went out West. It continually trickles down.

“A large part of our job is training volunteer and career firefighters to better prepare them to fight fires and then work with communities to better make those communities more resilient to fires.”

Long Fight

Nowadays, resiliency in firefighting also means attending to the mental health of the firefighters themselves, said Jeff Dill, founder and CEO of Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance.

“We’ve come a long way but we have a long way to go,” he said.

Dill worked 26 years in firefighting before retiring as a captain in suburban Chicago and creating the alliance 10 years ago. The nonprofit agency, based in Branson, works on behavioral health awareness, prevention, intervention and post-crisis strategies for firefighters throughout the world.

Even before this extraordinary year, mental health issues among firefighters were being discussed, including a 2018 study by the Ruderman Family Foundation in Boston.

The study revealed that first responders (policemen and firefighters) are more likely to die by suicide than in the line of duty. In 2017, there were at least 103 firefighter suicides and 140 police officer suicides. In contrast, 93 firefighters and 129 police officers died in the line of duty. 

Suicide is a result of mental illness, including depression and PTSD, which stems from constant exposure to death and destruction, the study said.

Firefighters are confronting a lot in 2020.

“It’s not only COVID, it’s the wildland fires, it’s also the rioting,” Dill said.

“With COVID each call is this, every call is a body, or someone struggling with COVID,” Dill said. “Then there is the isolation, the fear of taking it back to their parents, their kids, their spouses. All of this is still playing a role.

“We are still in all these hyper states of events going on. The unfortunate aspect is we will pay the price sometime later on in the year or early next year — when we have a chance to really reflect on what we saw, what we did.”

Flatland contributor Debra Skodack is a Kansas City-area freelance writer.

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